This week, a French frigate is on a goodwill visit to the Philippines as part of a broader swing through a series of Asian states. The interaction is one of a series in the past week that has put the spotlight on both France’s growing defense relationship with the Philippines as well as its role as a power in the Indo-Pacific.
France is hardly a new player in the Asia-Pacific, and its influence has long been visible through various means be it the legacy of its colonial role, overseas territorial holdings, defense sales, and its involvement as one of several powers working for the preservation of the rules-based order. But with the new buzz around the “Indo-Pacific” in recent months, France’s forays into the region have been the subject of even greater attention (See: “Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Challenge“).
Over the past week or so, the overwhelming focus has been on French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to India, which is no doubt has significance of its own. But another significant aspect of France’s role in the Indo-Pacific has been its continuing efforts to expand its ties with Southeast Asian states, including in the defense realm, from Vietnam to the Philippines to Malaysia. In yet another manifestation of this, just in the past few weeks, the French naval frigate Vendemiaire has been on visit to Brunei and then moving on to the Philippines this week as part of a wider series of Asian stops.
The inclusion of the Philippines is no surprise. Both countries have a longstanding relationship that has been deepening in the defense realm in recent years. Indeed, in May 2016, both sides inked a new defense agreement that they had been negotiating for years. The agreement set out an overall framework for developing security ties, including not just visits and dialogues but also training, capacity-building, and collaboration on defense equipment, logistics, and the defense industry (See: “When Will the Philippines Get its New French Vessels?”).
These past few weeks have seen an uptick of activity in bilateral ties. Last week, a high-level delegation from the French defense ministry was in Manila last week to participate in activities related to the first Philippines-France joint cooperation committee. Though French officials have not elaborated on the specifics of what was discussed, priorities previously have included counterterrorism and maritime security.
On Monday, in yet another demonstration of the defense ties between the two countries, the FNS Vendemiarie, a Floréal-class light surveillance frigate of the French Marine Nationale, officially kicked off its goodwill visit to the Philippines. According to the Philippine Navy, the goodwill visit, which is expected to last until March 16, includes a whole host of activities including customary arrival and welcome activities, meetings between French and Philippine personnel, security briefings, a shipboard tour, reciprocal receptions, and friendly games along with other confidence-building measures.
Commenting on the significance of the visit, France’s new ambassador to the Philippines, Nicolas Galey, framed it as part of France’s effort to “fully play its role as a Pacific power” and as part of its “military commitment to the security of Southeast Asia. Though Galey did not go into the details of what exactly was agreed and tried to avoid direct discussion of the South China Sea amid media scrutiny, he did note that the “new field of cooperation” was “very, very important” for both countries.”
To be sure, France-Philippines defense relations still remain at an early stage, with several previous agreements still to be realized, and France is only one of several partners that Manila is expanding its defense ties with. But events like the Vendemiarie visit nonetheless help reinforce the significance of ties in this realm within the wider context of the Indo-Pacific.